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Cape Town's Pakistani cellphone connection

It is simple enough to get a cellphone fixed in Victoria Road, Woodstock, provided you have the money and it is not midday on Friday, when the technicians close their shops and go to mosque. There are eight small cellphone repair businesses, all owned and run by young Pakistani men, situated along a single half-kilometre stretch between Salt River Road and the Woodstock Town Hall. The shops can be found inside hair salons, convenience stores and clothing wholesalers, marked by interchangeable signs — Z.K. Cellphones, Happy Cellular, Cell For You — and plastic accessories pressed up against the windows.

Shortly before noon on Thursday 20 August, a day that marked the early arrival of spring, five uniformed police officials sauntered into the dimly lit R5 Star, a discount Chinese store, followed by four men in jeans and jackets. Two of the men approached the proprietors, a middle-aged couple who answered in heavily accented English, and explained that they were searching for counterfeit goods. The unit fanned out and began a desultory inspection of the shelves. “Shit,” muttered Shaheed Malik*, the diminutive owner and sole employee of Happy Cellular, which he runs from a tiny stand tucked inside the shop’s entrance. “Today I leave my papers at home. Maybe this is trouble.”

He grimaced and then leaned over his glass countertop, attempting to look casual. Spread out below his tapping fingers was a neat array of cellphone accessories — car chargers, USB adapters, headphones, Bluetooth speakers, myriad protective pouches and cases — and a few empty plastic cellphone display stands, branded MTN yellow. One of the plainclothes inspectors pointed as soon as he noticed these. “Where are the cellphones? Why are the stands empty?”

“I don’t sell phones. I only do software and accessories,” answered Malik.

"Today I leave my papers at home. Maybe this is trouble."

The inspector — who introduced himself as a representative of the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA), which regulates the sale of electronic communications and broadcasting equipment in this country — stepped behind Malik’s counter and rummaged around for a while, but found nothing incriminating. A few minutes later, a man from Customs spotted a fake pair of ‘Beats By Dre’ headphones priced at R70, less than a tenth of the real value, and added it to the haul from the Chinese section of the store: a handful of pens, some branded Disney bags, and a few tins of knockoff Kiwi boot polish. After filling out a form, which they handed over to the grumbling Chinese couple, the officials, who told customers that they were conducting their raid as part of Operation Fiela, all departed for Casa Blanca clothing wholesalers next door.

“I won’t get the headphones back, but it’s good they didn’t ask me for papers,” said Malik after they left, calmly rearranging his stock. “I have asylum and I am allowed to be here — but a foreigner is a foreigner, and the police never listen.”

Malik, 32, moved to Johannesburg from Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, in 2009. He has lived and worked in Cape Town for nearly six months. He is unmarried — he insists that he will need to return home to find a suitable wife — and currently resides in Rylands, less than two kilometres from Athlone Stadium, with six other Pakistani men. In the evenings they share food and watch Bollywood films together. In the mornings they head out to work. Skilled practitioners in an informal trade that has mushroomed across the city in recent years, the men all make a living doing the same thing. Their cellphone repair counters, each individually sub-let from larger businesses, are located as far apart as Fish Hoek, Mitchells Plain, Bellville, Woodstock, and the Cape Town CBD.

Fixing cellphones is a smart niche to occupy in South Africa, where there are already many more sim cards than people. Smartphone usage is growing rapidly, with an estimated 23 million users, or 47% of the total population, in 2014 — an increase of 26% from the previous year. According to venture capital firm KPCB, more than half of South Africa’s internet traffic now comes from mobile devices. The country is in the midst of a data revolution — and the handheld portals that increasingly provide access are exceptionally prone to breaking.

Shattered touch-screens, faulty batteries, cellphones dropped in the sink: these and other common cellular disasters can either be booked in with registered company agents, who typically have little genuine interest in repairing devices that could otherwise be replaced, or taken to one of the many informal repair shops that have sprung up to meet the demand. “We fix problems that big companies don’t,” explained Amir Kahn*, a veteran cellphone technician in Plein Street. “We give affordable service to the customer. Even the big companies don’t understand everything we do.”

Kahn, who has stooped shoulders and a magnificent mustache, shares his premises with four other small businesses, including a tailor and a traditional healer. His share of the rent, which comes to R26,000 in total, is R15,000. He has been repairing cellphones for 15 years. Before leaving Pakistan, in 1999, he worked on television sets and DVD players. “It’s all the same electronics,” he said with a shrug. He is comfortable stripping a cellphone down to its barest components and taking a heat gun to the motherboard. His hands remain steady as he manipulates the tiny screws. When new models come out, Kahn looks them up online. Sometimes he asks friends in the business for help. (There are four Pakistani-owned cellphone shops on Plein Street, clustered between Parliament and the Grand Parade, in addition to a single Bangladeshi outlet.) Since joining the trade, which was a fraction of its current size when he began, Kahn has acted as a mentor for many younger Pakistani men. They sit next to him at his counter and assist with basic tasks. A large number go on to open their own businesses. According to Kahn, 99% of small cellphone shops in Cape Town are owned by Pakistanis. There is no published research exploring this phenomenon.

The Ministry of Overseas Pakistanis and Human Resource Development, a government ministry in Pakistan, estimated that there were 75,000 Pakistani migrants living in South Africa in 2010, by some measure the largest population on the continent. (Libya, with 20,000, was second.) In total, the ministry estimates that there are currently some 7.6 million Pakistanis living and working abroad. By sending remittances home this diaspora plays an important role in Pakistan’s national economy, representing its second largest source of foreign exchange after exports. (Other potential sources of foreign exchange include investment, tourism, and currency trading.) In 2014, Pakistani migrant workers sent home a total of US$ 15.8 billion, at an average of US$ 173 per person per month. Like a number of other migrant groups making a living in this country, South Africa’s Pakistani community is primarily here to work.

“There is no business in Pakistan,” explained Shaheed Malik, from the Chinese shop in Woodstock. “Maybe you watch the news. Terrorism, electricity — so many problems. That’s why I decided to leave.”

"Maybe you watch the news. Terrorism, electricity — so many problems. That’s why I decided to leave."

He chose South Africa after consulting with three cousins who had already moved to Johannesburg. They spoke positively of their adopted country and encouraged him to follow. Having made up his mind, he paid a trafficking agent 300,000 Pakistani rupees — equivalent to R40,000 at the time — and flew to Maputo, where he was made to wait for two days before being driven, with a group of fellow migrants, towards the border. The van dropped the migrants off and they walked through bush for seven hours. Another driver picked them up on the South African side and took them to Johannesburg. Malik immediately applied for asylum and began working at one of his cousins’ cellphone shops. He opened his own business after saving enough money.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) recorded 37 Pakistani refugees and 5,489 asylum seekers in South Africa last year. The Department of Home Affairs issued 5,721 temporary residence and 41 permanent residence permits to Pakistani migrants in 2012. Nearly half of the temporary residence permits (49.1%) were relatives’ visas, an unusually high proportion, according to a 2013 Statistics South Africa report on documented immigration.

Malik — who is very short, wears a ring and an imitation gold watch, and has a boyish, somewhat mischievous face — specialises in software repairs. He can unlock second-hand phones and knows how to reprogramme faulty operating systems. When customers arrive with hardware problems he takes their devices home to Rylands, where Pakistani technicians keep their workshops open until late at night. Malik’s accessories come from Pakistani wholesalers in Athlone. The wholesalers get their stock from Pakistani importers. The importers — who do not always work through legal channels, which is why ICASA and Customs officials sometimes raid cellphone shops — order their shipments from China. “Importer, wholesaler, technician,” Malik explained, tapping his counter. “Crocodile, shark, little fish.”

He pays the shopkeepers R3,000 a month for his corner, which measures less than five square meters. Rental for the entire premises — including rates, electricity and security tariffs — comes to R20,000, according to the Chinese couple, whose own multiverse of products includes tools, kitchenware, party hats, toilet rolls, LED lights, mebos sweets, audio equipment and children’s toys, all sold for preposterously low prices. Malik hangs most of his stock on the wall behind him. This is common practice among cellphone shop entrepreneurs who wish to conserve space. He stores his green prayer mat on a shelf above the display. On Fridays he takes it down and walks to mosque in Salt River. He takes few other breaks from his shop, which is open seven days a week, other than to buy lunch from a nearby Pakistani takeaway restaurant. Most months, he earns between R3,000 and R4,000 after expenses, of which R1,500 goes straight towards his shared accommodation. He shops for food and other essentials as cheaply as possible. Whatever is left over he sends home to Karachi, where his mother and younger brother live.

“Business is difficult,” he said. “There is much competition now. The rand is getting weaker.” (Four years ago the exchange rate was 12.5 Pakistani rupees to the rand. That figure has fallen to less than eight.) “I came to South Africa to make business. But Pakistan is getting better.”

He smiled and plugged in a cellphone.

“When I save enough money I will go home.”

Kimon de Greef is a freelance journalist from Cape Town. All photographs by Barry Christianson.

* Names have been changed on request.

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